Physicist or Physics Teacher: What Makes a Teacher?
This question arose during a discussion with Barrie Bennett, when he paid my college a visit in Montreal. What is the difference between a physicist and a physics teacher? Between a psychologist and a psychology teacher? Between a philosopher and a philosophy teacher?
The question arose anew as I started a second reading of Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver. Reading about the Royal Society's members doing all sorts of experiments to figure out ever more and more about the world, it came to me that I had enjoyed learning about physics, but had never really done any during my years of study; just repeating what others before me had done already. I realized I really didn't want to do physics (which is probably why I quickly gravitated toward teaching).
I remember when I started teaching: I wanted to do and talk about physics with my students, but preferably high stuff. The tougher the course I was given, the better, as it served as a way for me to work equations and problems. But as time passed, as I realized there were students in my class, and as I grasped that my purpose was to enable them, not me, I realized something was changing.
I was becoming a teacher.
Physicist build the future, by developing a better understanding of the world around us. Physics teachers build the future, by enabling students to develop a better understanding of the world. Sounds similar, yet it is fundamentally different. How so? Their objective and the problems they are trying to solve in order to reach it are different. The teacher's objective is student learning.
So how does one becomes a physics teacher. Well, here lies part of the problem: By learning to be a physicist...
Of course, knowing about "the Game", as Perkins would call it, is fundamentally important, but is that all there is? Can any physicist claim to be a teacher? I really don't think so. To call yourself a teacher, you have to embrace student learning as your objective, your "program" as Thomas Kuhn might say. In turn, the program defines the problems to solve.
Is that it? In a way, no. It's just a start. It says nothing about quality, efficiency, excellence... It only says you're starting. On any path, one has to shift its focus. See the world through new grids, demonstrate humility and seek to provide good questions instead of good answers.
Foremost, you have to understand that it is no longer about you. Your goal now is to enable learning in someone else. You're a tool, to put it bluntly, but a tool for Good.
You've been a student and can at least start from that perspective. Only thing is, it is a good and a bad start because you are not your students... At best, you're kind of close enough to one or two in your classroom.
Pedagogy needs to be practiced and refined, with a focus on conscious and continuous improvement of skills through reflective practice, but also through a lifelong search for better ways. Teaching involves numerous skills coming together over an extended period of time: instruction, motivation, classroom management, time management, assessment, evaluation, integration of technology, feedback, presence, empathy, etc. One does not come in a classroom an expert on how to interlace these skills to enable learning, like Athena in armour and armed out of Zeus' forehead. One needs work, time, exploration, reflection and focus.
Dear readers, what would you say characterizes a teacher, as compared to a practitioner?